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"In Moscow Steven MeRae could at best expect to dance the Golden Idol, but for the English he is a technically flawless, exceptionally musical hero-lover"
25 JUN 14 Steven McRae and Sarah Lamb are garlanded in superlatives by this reviewer from the major newspaper Izvestia, whose coverage of the Royal Ballet Moscow tour last week took a while longer to appear than others, and hence - considering current world events - a keen interest to see whether politics would affect the coverage. No such fear.
This review adds its own generous bouquets and thoughtful admiration to the critical acclaim given the British company in Moscow - and its interest lies also in that the critic Svetlana Naborshchikova saw not the most obvious Manon casts, the first night with Nuñez and Bonelli, and the last, with Osipova and Acosta, but one of the middle ones, Lamb and McRae, and she was swept away.
It’s of interest to see that the strangeness to Moscow a decade ago of a black male lead (Acosta) is now repeated in their surprise at seeing a smallish, red-haired man (McRae) in a leading role. This rigid conception of what Russians call emploi - or suitability by physical type - was responsible for Mikhail Baryshnikov’s defection to the West (he was another small man) and, much more to the point, for the emigration to London of Moscow’s own young superstar Natalia Osipova, attacked by rigid Soviet-era traditionalists for her unconventional qualities but last week lauded unstintingly in Moscow for what she showed of herself with the British company.
Here is my translation.
Bolshoi Theatre takes on British style
The Bolshoi Theatre has hosted Britain’s Royal Ballet on its historic stage. The British company’s artistic director Kevin O’Hare has said that the choice of repertoire to show in the tour’s programmes was guided by ‘a desire to show the breadth of our repertoire and the variety of our artists’.
The problem was resolved by an evening of one-act ballets and the full-length Manon. Two of the choreographers, Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan, come from the glorious past of the Royal Ballet, while Christopher Wheeldon and Wayne McGregor show its current perspective.
The most recent of the productions, Wayne McGregor’s Tetraktys, was premiered in February this year. Last year the choreographer declined to create a new Rite of Spring at the Bolshoi Theatre, citing the lack of discipline. At the Royal Ballet as far as discipline is concerned, things are fine. In any case, the word ‘discipline’ is the first that comes to mind when watching McGregor’s work, as 12 dancers obediently roll up and unroll their precious bodies. (Pictured, Sarah Lamb and Steven McRae by Johan Persson)
Christopher Wheeldon, brought up in the citadel of Balanchine's New York City Ballet, presented a production of the sort that Mr B practised for cash. It has accessible music - whistling bits, rumbling bits, and all generally as annoying as a fly in summer - the work of the minimalist Michael Nyman. An accessible set design - a metal construction by the famous designer Jean-Marc Puissant that repeats the lines of the Sangatte fences (where the English Channel train tunnel comes to the surface). And finally, an accessible theme - a high-speed train journey.
Nyman wrote his music for the launch of the first French high-speed train, the TGV (train à grande vitesse). Wheeldon changed train to dance and produced DGV: Danse à grande vitesse. Despite the name, the pace of the dance is rather more moderate. And anyway what's the hurry? Ballet is not an express train.
Four couples thoroughly demonstrate all their ability, and Wheeldon does not skimp on the benefit in his outlining of beautiful poses and movements. The corps de ballet are now the exit of the train, then the greeting of the departing passengers, and then they dance - which at times is no less inventive than the soloists.
For Frederick Ashton in Rhapsody, the hierarchy of principal-soloists-ensemble is strictly observed. Perhaps this is because the ballet was set on Mikhail Baryshnikov, the one and only. It is quite possible that Ashton saw Baryshnikov dance Vestris and created a new continuation of that story, where a king of dance performs as master of ceremonies at a courtly ball.
The ballet is saturated with virtuoso choreography, perfectly combining with the equally virtuosic Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini composed by Rachmaninov for his own solo concerts. Unfortunately, the nervous pianism of the company accompanist Robert Clark came over as coarse-ground, while the dancers, adept in all these whimsical turns and transitional moves, the continual changes of tempo and rhythmic games, deserved more sophisticated partnership.
Manon gave the Moscow public its next injection of political correctness. On the previous tour by the British, 11 years ago, the black-skinned Cuban Carlos Acosta, appearing in the role of Prince Siegfried [IB: Swan Lake] made the auditorium gasp in amazement, and it took some times to get used to this exotic personage. However, this time the public favourably accepted Acosta in the role of a French nobleman, and a day early in the other cast, the ‘boy’ Steven McRae, aroused thunderous applause.
Here in Moscow, he would at best expect to dance the Golden Idol, but for the English - if you please - he is a technically flawless, exceptionally musical hero-lover. Plus he is an outstanding partner, controlling lifts and twisting catches with delightful ease. True, certain observers of this outstanding man during the length of the performance felt they still longed for for something more noble in demeanour and more extended lines, but it’s nothing terrible, they’ll live with that. Or they will go to see Manon at the Stanislavsky, where the premiere in July will be the first staging of the ballet in the Russian capital.
In London the ballet has already lasted 40 years without major changes, except the 2011 reorchestration of Massenet’s music - the former version, for all its virtues, was made on the principle of melody and oom-pah-pah. Conductor Martin Yates enriched the orchestration both in timbre and texture, and in Moscow was played by the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra. Under Yates’ baton, Massenet sounded sentimental in the best way, without cloying.
Still, of course, it is not the music that determines the viability of Manon. The success of this ambitious choreo-drama is in the detailed work on the roles at every level, from the top to the extras. In this the British are great masters. Not one character in the highly populated action feels extraneous - each one has its own place and definition.
Destroyer of hearts
In the centre of the action is that mysterious destroyer of hearts, Manon Lescaut, about whose moral qualities neither her literary creator, Abbé Prévost, nor the choreographer Kenneth McMillan have a unanimous view. This writer, who saw Sarah Lamb in the role of Manon, was more than impressed. And not only by her reliable pointework, feisty rotations and fearless flights in the arms of the gentlemen around her. The doubts about who this girl is - a rootless adventuress, or a calculating power-seeker, or an innocent victim of circumstances - vanished. Sarah Lamb’s Manon was almost from some other planet, what in German romanticism they term ‘the eternal feminine’ - a marvellous flower blooming in a hostile world, and because of its cruelty prematurely withered.
On the last day of the tour, Manon was danced, for the first time, by Natalia Osipova, her first performance here since her exit from the Bolshoi Theatre. (Pictured above by Mikhail Logvinov/Bolshoi Theatre: Osipova in the pas de trois with Alexander Campbell as brother Lescaut, left, and Christopher Saunders as Monsieur GM) After the show Natalia heartened her fans by saying that the Bolshoi directors have asked her to give them a list of ballets that she would like to dance, and possible dates.
Alas, this does not mean that Osipova, who is now a full principal at the Royal Ballet, and guest soloist at the Mikhailovsky, ABT and La Scala, will be dancing in Bolshoi Theatre productions in the near future. As her agent, Sergei Danilyan, told Izvestia, the artist ‘simply doesn’t have enough time at the moment’
Rave for McRae, Lamb and the English ballet
Osipova and Watson in McGregor’s Tetraktys (photo Johan Persson/ROH)
This exhibition of plastique, typical of McGregor, might appear quite tedious, if if were not for the black backdrop flashing geometric shapes and the musical score. In choosing Bach’s Art of Fugue for ballet, the choreographer took a risk, but the risk paid off eventually. The deep restraint of the music helpfully offset the brash design, many-coloured costumes and puzzling choreography. For this, McGregor very wisely avoided scenic nonsenses, rejecting the temptation to set the artful counterpoint into dance terms, in order to improve what Bach himself created. The assimilation of the dancers is a voice in the whole, but it is not excessive. It seems something of a reference to classics - as, for instance, the male duet has a link to the canon in Balanchine’s Agon.